Politics, Americas, Middle East

Is Biden resolving or complicating Yemen crisis?

Experts say cooperation between US, Iran, and Saudi Arabia can only bring lasting solution to Yemen and other regional issues

Mohammed Alragawi   | 09.04.2021
Is Biden resolving or complicating Yemen crisis?

ISTANBUL

Since President Joe Biden assumed office on Jan. 20, the US policy towards Yemen has witnessed a major shift. In the very first month in office, Biden halted support to offensive operations, blocked several arms sales to Saudi Arabia, appointed Timothy A. Lenderking as a special envoy for Yemen, and removed the rebel Houthis from being listed as an international terrorist group.

Analysts believe that these moves have already cast consequences on the six-year-old military conflict. Over the past two months, the Houthis have led an extensive military attack on Marib province, 120 kilometers (74 miles) east of the capital, Sanaa, where fighting is still going on. They launched a relentless bombing campaign on Saudi territory including drone and ballistic attacks.

While the Biden administration seems serious about ending the war in the country, its moves have raised questions, whether the new policy is leading to the resolution or deepening of the conflict.

“The Biden Administration seeks to revive the political trajectory of the peace process in Yemen within its first 100 days but has yet to mirror a profound understanding of the conflict's dynamics,” Ibrahim Jalal, an expert on Yemen affairs at Washington-based Middle East Institute, told Anadolu Agency.

He said it is early to say whether the US is making any progress in Yemen. “But it must factor in the complexities of the conflict rather than to seek a quick fix,” he added.

Many experts argue that for a long time, the US has not had any Yemen policy. Instead, its attitude towards the country was aligned with Saudi Arabia. Previous US administrations under Donald Trump and Barack Obama backed the Saudi-led alliance in its intervention in the civil war in Yemen.

However, the Biden administration seems to have a different approach. On Feb. 4, President Biden declared that war in Yemen must end when he announced to halt US support to the Saudi-led coalition's offensive operations. His statement was clear of a shift in Yemen policy and a strong signal to Riyadh. At the same time, the Biden administration also stressed commitment to protect Saudi territory.


Houthis on offensive

Paradoxically, Houthis increased their massive offensive against Marib, a key northern city and the center of the internationally recognized government after the US removed them from the list of being designated as a foreign terrorist organization.

They organized more rockets and drone attacks against Saudi Arabia despite the US and UN calls to stop their offensive and take part in international efforts to find a political solution.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, former US Ambassador to Yemen Gerald M. Feierstein, who served from September 2010 to October 2013 said the Biden administration can play an important role by cooperating with UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths in pressing the parties to return to the negotiating table,

“I believe that the US can and is playing an important role in strengthening the international community's effort to achieve a peaceful resolution of the Yemen conflict and beginning the long process of reconstruction and rehabilitation in Yemen,” he said.

The developments show that the US efforts have worked in the light of Saudi Arabia’s offer of the cease-fire to Houthi rebels to end the six-year military conflict. Saudi plan includes the opening of the Sanaa International Airport and holding talks between Yemen's warring rivals under the UN's auspices.

However, the Houthis have rejected this initiative, and earlier also the US plan for a nationwide cease-fire and halting of drone attacks on Saudi territories.

A quick look at the opposing parties’ actions on the ground makes it unlikely that the Yemen crisis is near to any solution and also proves that there are limits to US diplomacy. It looks that pressuring one side, while ignoring the other does not seem to be the right plan.

The US administrations, be that under Trump, Obama or Biden have seen the Yemen crises through the prism of broader Saudi-Iranian rivalry.


Yemen as pressuring tool

In 2015, President Obama supported the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen, partly to ease its anger over the Iran nuclear deal. Trump also used Yemen to negotiate partial relief to Iran for its help to end the war and Houthi attacks on Saudi Arabia.

It appears that Biden is also following the same path, using Yemen as a pressuring tool on both Saudi Arabia and Iran. He uses the Iranian support to the Houthis in Yemen to negotiate a successor agreement of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iranian nuclear deal.

“The question is whether Iran is attempting to link ending its support to the Houthis to the negotiations with the US to return to the Iran nuclear deal. If the Iranians believe they can hold the Yemen conflict hostage to the US position on the nuclear file, it will mean prolonging the conflict because the US may not accept the linkage,” said Feierstein.

Iran praised the Biden administration’s decision to halt support for offensive operations in Yemen, but it also urged Biden to take concrete steps toward rejoining the Iran nuclear deal.

“Stopping support ... for the Saudi coalition, if not a political maneuver, could be a step towards correcting past mistakes,” said Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh on February 6, according to state media.

Jalal believes that Iran is certainly trying to leverage the Yemen conflict in the run-up to the JCPOA negotiations, but the complexity of the dynamics merits a detachment to have more viable prospects.

But Feierstein argued that Iranians can improve the atmosphere for negotiations with the US as well with its neighbors by aiding the UN negotiation process in Yemen.

“Thus, either helpful or unhelpful, the Yemen conflict is linked to the broader question of Iran's regional policies,” he said.

A partial solution to Yemen may reduce US-Iranian disputes, but will not end them. However, cooperation between the US, Iran, and Saudi Arabia over Yemen could lead towards a more solid solution and resolve regional issues.

For a lasting solution, observers believe that the US, in cooperation with the UN, should invest in stabilization efforts by supporting local authorities and enhance good governance models. This, they note, will eventually add to its influence in the peace process in the war-torn country.

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